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Leighton Meester: "I Don’t Need to Keep the Bar Low; I Can Keep Raising it"

Primarily known as an actor, Meester's proving she's more than just another Hollywood hyphenate—she's gone her own way and released a record on Vagrant.

If you want to see Leighton Meester’s eyes light up, just ask her about mixtapes. Sitting in a corner booth at Marmalade, a Valley café decked out with decorate plates and other wall tchotchkes that remind her of Florida, where she spent most of her youth, Leighton is zealously recalling the mixtapes that introduced her to alternative music when she was nine years old. It was her brother who showed her that a music world beyond Britney Spears and N*SYNC existed. “I was able to outgrow and shun the popular music,” she says in between bites of bread she’s dipped in her split pea soup.

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Almost 20 years later, Meester is now doing the same service to her young following, which started with her leading role as Blair Waldorf on the CW soap Gossip Girl. Only there’s no mixtape—instead Meester is sharing her own music with her debut album Heartstrings, a dreamy, sun-soaked collection of melancholic pop music that pays homage to some of her favorite singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Sheryl Crow, who’s longtime producer Jeff Trott helped refine Meester’s new sound.

Just like the days when she traded mixtapes on the school bus, Meester still has no interest in what’s on the radio, or rather, landing on the radio. She’s already done that. While filming her drama-filled show about Manhattan trust fund kids acting like adults, Meester was approached by the party-pop band Cobra to lend her vocals to “Good Girls Go Bad,” a song that mirrored her character’s trajectory and landed on the top 10 charts. But, after Meester signed to Republic, and realized she was being pulled in a pop direction, she walked away from the experience, picked up a guitar, headed to Budapest, and started on the sound she wanted all along, pain-laced folk songs.

This experience also marked the last time any parallel could be drawn between Meester’s Gossip Girl character and her solo music. Heartstrings is not an record made by Blair Waldorf, nor would anyone with ears and an appreciation for self-willed music wish it to be. The nine song collection is Meester at her most personal, embracing lonely hours and having to put on a show for the outside world; it’s the sonic diary of a sharp-witted, sardonic actress, who, by the way, has really good taste in music.

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It’s also an especially brave move for an artist who could sell records based on the fame of her name if she wanted. Meester went an indie route instead, developing her own service deal at Vagrant Records (a label synonymous with emo and The Get Up Kids), where she self-funded her full-length—a batch of songs that couldn’t be further from the music holding court at the top of the charts right now.

“I’m not necessarily trying to make a living off music or get into the Top 40, and it’s so much more comfortable that way,” Meester says, her arms casually folded on the table. “I wrote these songs in the last few years and they’re still as meaningful as when I first wrote them, if not more. I want that to continue. That’s the kind of music I listen to.”

In person, she’s just as open and barefaced as her music. She’s not dolled up like Blair Waldorf, or her Broadway role in this past run of Of Mice and Men. Her look today—a white t-shirt and jean shorts, her hair falling in beachy waves—is especially laid-back.

We talked about her transition from pop, growing as a songwriter in the public eye, and introducing her fans to music that they won’t be embarrassed to have liked when they were younger.

Noisey: When did music enter into the picture?
Leighton Meester: My family was always playing and listening to music. I played piano when I was a kid. I had an older brother and he would make me tapes with Green Day, Soul Asylum, Pearl Jam, the Offspring. I don’t know if it was just because I had a brother who was in middle school when I was a kid but I felt like I had the introduction to more mature music and I was able to outgrow and shun the popular music. Now I look back and think, "Eh, it was kind of fun, like N*SYNC." It’s not really my taste, but that’s what people were into. Were you ever into N*SYNC?

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I was never into N*SYNC.
It was the worst but I can appreciate it now for what it is. At the time, I was like, no. Ricky Martin? No. Some of my friends were going to Good Morning America to see him and wave at him and I was like, "You guys are so stupid." Now, I think Britney Spears and N*SYNC are better than some of the stuff I see.

No names will be named.
Well, I don’t want to criticize because I know how hard it is. Somebody is writing those songs, dancing, playing instruments, working, and coordinating the whole thing. I know how hard it is to get stuff out there and work for it.

Is your new sound due to you growing up and gravitating towards these adult sounds, or wanting to push away from the pop persona you had before?
It’s not calculated in that way. The music that I was doing represents that time in my life and my inability to speak up for myself or my insecurities—which is a huge part of my writing now. I’m not that pop person and I don’t know that I ever was. Because I had started a TV show [Gossip Girl], music people and Cobra Starship found me.

I signed with Republic. It was fun, but it wasn’t sustainable and it wasn’t my taste or scene. I have an appreciation for it and lots of gratitude for that time. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for that—it was a major crash course in learning the business side of music. I had grown up writing poetry and that’s the most romantic part of music, everything else is business. When it comes to acting and other sides of my career, it’s hard to think about the art and business at the same time.

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Was making the song with Cobra Starship, “Good Girls Go Bad,” the moment when you decided you’d pursue music as more than a one-off thing?
Yeah and I was doing an interview where I was asked what my hobbies are. I was like, "I like to make music." Someone read it and got in touch with him and that’s how I ended up doing the Cobra Starship song. It was good for the time, but for the long run it wasn’t going to work.

They tell you what to do, who to write with, who to put on your songs. There was a political agenda. If I had a song I’d written that was just me, the label wouldn’t push it and put it out. I didn’t need it so I said, "I’m going to walk away from this."

Did any of the songs you wrote in Budapest end up on the record?
A lot of them. Over the course of two years, I wrote all of the songs. In 2011 and 2012, it was a legal process and emotional process from separating from the producers and the label—it was amicable from my standpoint, no one wanted to push something that wasn’t there. Then I met John Cohen [Vagrant Records president] through people that I knew and thought he was really trustworthy. So he helped me to get out of that contract and then I decided that the best thing to do was have my own label with them and fund the whole thing myself.

Did you fund Heartstrings because you wanted to retain control over it?
Yeah. Singing is my second career—and the one problem with that is it had to be start and stop. I met Jeff [Trott] in 2012, recorded the pre-production of March of last year, recorded in the studio in July, and it took me from then till now to mix and master and finish the record. When we had finished the studio, I went in and sang over everything and that was in December and I had almost all of this year booked with the play [Of Mice and Men]. It’s taken a long time but it’s a good thing. I’m happy with it.

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What was your impression of Vagrant before you signed with them? Did you know that you wanted to go the indie route?
Their whole attitude went with what I was doing business-wise. I think the attitude of a label that pushes indie artists might just be more laid-back and not as concerned with dollar signs and I get that.

What’s the story behind the song “LA”? It sticks out from the rest of the songs because it has a 60s girl group feel with the harmonies.
I wrote it when I was visiting my family in Florida and I liked the idea that it sounds happy but it’s not. It’s how I feel a lot of the time. I show one thing and I’m not feeling that way on the inside—I would say that’s the case with a lot of the songs on the record.

Even the most happy ones, which there aren’t a lot of, are totally ironic and sarcastic. The song is about how I had just moved to LA and was building a house here and was doing it all by myself, for myself. I was really lonely and thought what were these things worth if I wasn’t able to share it with somebody and was unhappy or the people in my life aren’t true. It’s the same idea as “Heartstrings,” where it’s got pace and sounds strong, but it’s about me eteriorating. It’s saying, “I don’t need anybody,” but what I’m really saying is, “Actually I do.”

That’s very elegantly put in the song. I’d assume that sentiment would breed more of a raw, unhinged sound. But it’s a dreamy, pretty song. The contrast is interesting.
I’ve always liked when the sound of a song going against the grain. I say, “I’m calling to say I don’t care / I’m calling to say that I wish you were here.” It’s easier in life to not need anybody but that’s not the point of life—at least not now, I’ve realized. You have to let love in and allow yourself to feel.

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Is there any awkwardness, now that you’re married, that this album of really sad songs is coming out?
If you didn’t have pain then you wouldn’t have a record, a movie, or a book, or anything. When I’m writing, I can’t think about how it comes out. I just do what feels right.

Was music something that you and Adam Brody bonded over when you met?
Sure. I think a lot of people do that. But I don’t think that you have to have the same taste in a friendship or relationship—you have to have the same values.

Do you guys have a solid combined record collection?
I have some good stuff and we’ve inherited a lot from family and flea markets in New York. I used to live above this place in Chelsea/Meatpacking District that was a co-op store with everything under the sun and they always had good records there. There are a couple of good record stores near by like Backspin.

Do you feel like Of Mice and Men prepared you better for live shows?
It didn’t hurt. I think that one of the reasons I got the play is because they knew I’ve done live music. I’ve done a lot of live shows with these songs that are on the record and I think that the stress of it is gone.

Do you feel any weirdness about releasing your debut album when you’re already in the spotlight? Most artists are able to have an incubation period without anyone watching.
I have to look at it like it’s all good. It is hard to some extent. People generally—and, not you, because it hasn’t come up, which I’m very glad for—look for a headline, a sound bite. People feel like they have to bring in the element that I’m known for which is that I’m a TV actress.

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I know it’s not good for headlines, I know it’s not good for sound bites, but my music isn’t related to that. I don’t get inspiration from that stuff. People can’t grasp that it’s a separate thing and I’m a separate person.

It’s so much cooler that you’re being brave, releasing music that people wouldn’t expect, and self-funding it. To me, that’s a better story.
Yeah and I think that the music truly compliments what I’m going for in my career as an actor: a reflection of myself that’s emotional, open, vulnerable and still strong. What I’m excited for is people who have the lowest expectations and the same taste as me—they just don’t know it—and they hear my music and think, “My mind is changed.” Or “This is better than I thought.” When people have a low expectation for you that’s good because it’s easy to surpass it, but I have high expectations for myself.

With the play, I know that we had a very young audience because it was me, James Franco, and Chris O'Dowd and they were like, “I want to see this,” not, “Oh, this is a very important piece of literature written by an American great.” The theater held 1100 people and if five of those people came in and said, “We just want to see someone famous in real life,” if they were moved even a little bit by this incredible piece of writing, that’s all I can hope for. It’s difficult because the people who want to see that are coming because they’re into Gossip Girl.

Do you feel a sense of loyalty to that demographic?
I definitely don’t feel a sense of loyalty. I think the opposite. I don’t feel like I have to appeal to the lowest common denominator so that everyone likes it. They don’t necessarily have the same taste as me. I’m truly saying this in the nicest way possible because I’m not 16 years old, I’m going on 30 years old and I’m an adult. I was moved much more by doing the Steinbeck play than the TV show and if I can bring them over to see Steinbeck and listen to Heartstrings, it’s awesome. I don’t need to keep the bar low; I can keep raising it. That’s why I feel like I’m not in a position that I can do what I like.

That’s not at all a diss on what I’ve done for the past six years of my life. That show was very important and it’s one of the reasons why I’m able to sit down with you now. No one would know or care. The fact that I’m not doing pop music and it’s not sexualized, talking about drinking or going out and partying—I think that’s less loyal. That’s feeding on the need to appeal and it’s not necessary. I need to do what’s good for me and what I like. My messages aren’t degrading. So in that sense I think that I’m a loyal to a younger fanbase and that’s awesome because those people grow up and develop better taste.

Marissa G. Muller is a writer living in LA. She's on Twitter.